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We are more than a third of the way through 2023, and so far I have to admit that it hasn’t been a banner reading year for me. There have been a few really great reads, but not a lot of major standouts. With one or two exceptions, that was true of this month as well: for me, most of these books were good, but not spectacular. . . but I’ll let you read my reviews and decide for yourselves if these books sound like a good fit for you.


Uncovering the Love of Jesus; A Lent Devotional, by Asheritah Ciuciu: I’m not an avid celebrator of Lent, but I do enjoy reading through a Lenten devotional in the weeks leading up to Easter. After reading and loving Asheritah Ciuciu’s beautiful Advent devotional two Christmases ago, I knew Uncovering the Love of Jesus would be a great spiritual tone-setter for me this Easter season. Following a brief introduction to the purpose and meaning of Lent, the book is divided into seven one-week sections, with each section including five weekday devotionals, a weekly Sunday Lent celebration (ideal for family devotion time), and suggested family activities.

The theme of this devotional is the love exhibited by Jesus on the cross and at the tomb, and each daily reading zeroes in on a specific aspect of Jesus’ character or relational interactions as seen in Scripture. The devotionals include direct Bible teaching in addition to a prayer and spiritual application practice as we are invited to meditate on Jesus’ beautiful heart and then reflect that heart to those around us. This book is fairly straightforward, with a clear focus on Christ. While I would have enjoyed a little more commentary, I appreciated that Jesus was the star of the devotional.

Though intended for Lent, this devotional could be read any time of year. And if you choose to purchase this book, please invest in the physical copy: with its gorgeous case wrapped cover and glossy pages, it’s a book you will want sitting out on your coffee table every Easter season. This would make a superb gift—maybe for Valentine’s Day, in time to be enjoyed during Lent!

My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Print

The Power of Moments: Why Certain Moments Have Extraordinary Impact, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath: Every life is comprised of more moments than we could ever hope to document, but there are certain moments that seem to define us—the meaningful experiences that stand out in our memories and go on to impact every subsequent moment. These standout experiences seem arbitrary, yet Chip and Dan Heath argue that they do not need to be left up to fate. In this book the brothers identify the four traits that make moments especially memorable and meaningful—Elevation, Pride, Insight, and Connection (best remembered through the acronym EPIC)—and show how we can harness these factors to create meaningful moments for ourselves, our relationships, our families, and in the workplace.

After making a case for the existence and importance of defining moments (which tend to fall into the categories of peaks, pits, or transitions), Chip and Dan Heath walk us through the steps of meaningful-moment creation: boosting sensory appeal, raising the stakes, defying expectations, guiding people to sudden realizations, initiating moments of insight, offering recognition, sparking pride through milestones, building courage, and creating shared moments. Each of these strategies is illustrated through real-life studies, scenarios, and success stories from businesses and ordinary individuals.

I enjoy nonfiction books like this one that are just as entertaining as they are useful. While the principles here involve more common sense than revelation, it was nice to see the ideas laid out in one place and illustrated in action. I will be holding onto and practicing many of the memory-creation strategies for my family and myself, and even though I’m not a businessperson, I really enjoyed hearing the fascinating anecdotes shared in this book. Great for fans of Malcolm Gladwell or Freakonomics.

My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Audiobook

No Reason to Hide: Standing for Christ in a Collapsing Culture, by Erwin W. Lutzer: There is an obvious and growing gap between the Biblical worldview held by faithful Christians and the views espoused by secular Americans, and as tolerance for differing beliefs continues its free fall, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christians to remain under the radar with our beliefs. In No Reason to Hide, Erwin Lutzer encourages Christians to vocally and unequivocally hold true to our convictions. In addition to identifying un-Biblical ideologies around issues of race, sexuality, Marxism, moral relativism and self-idolatry, and civil liberties, Lutzer equips believers with information and spiritual fortification to defend our values and our faith.

I read Lutzer’s previous book, We Will Not Be Silenced, two years ago; this book is very much a continuation of the themes presented there. When I read We Will Not Be Silenced, I appreciated much of the book’s messaging but resisted some of the alarmist and potentially antagonistic verbiage. Less than two years later, I see much of what Lutzer predicted becoming a reality and am more amenable to his messaging. The world really is growing more hostile to Christianity before my eyes, and voices like Lutzer’s are very much needed.

An awareness of these harmful ideologies is a good start, but countering them will require courage and a strong sense of purpose, both of which are provided within the pages of this book. Lutzer shares stories from brave, resilient Christians in history who have faced similar resistance yet remained true to their convictions. He offers strong Biblical evidence for the views he espouses, and explains WHY it is so important that we cling to them.

At points in the book I felt that Lutzer’s politics were his motivating force and that he gathered Biblical evidence to support his views, rather than the healthier approach of aligning his politics and agenda around God and Christianity. The resulting stance is the same regardless, but there are instances in the book (especially when discussing immigration, globalism, and civil liberties) when Lutzer seemed to have shaped a Biblical response around potentially un-Christlike ideas. I could see committed Christians holding opposing views on these topics and I worry that his critiques on these particular subjects could distract from the better aspects of his message.

The book ends with a rallying call to Christians to accept the blessing that accompanies Christ-centered suffering. Lutzer is clear that the level of resistance currently experienced by American Christians pales in comparison to the hostility and persecution experienced by believers at other times in history and to this day in other parts of the world, and Lutzer believes this lack of suffering by American Christians speaks to our lackluster devotion to beliefs that Jesus Himself said would provoke suffering. He reminds us of the powerful evangelism that comes through Christian suffering, and he elaborates upon the blessings that stem from our wholehearted commitment to sharing Christ with the watching world even when (especially when) that commitment makes us unpopular. This is inspiring and brings what could be a depressing, doom-filled book into perspective.

Despite what mainstream media tells us, I don’t know of many pastors who are talking about these issues (and to be honest, I don’t know if they should, at least not from the pulpit). But the Christian church as a whole DOES need to be discussing the ideas that Lutzer boldly addresses here, and I’m thankful for bold voices like his that are willing to enter into this national conversation.

My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Audiobook

Felicity, by Mary Oliver: It’s rare for me to pick up a poetry collection, but I need to do it more because it’s a reading decision I rarely regret. This brief collection is lovely: in spare and deceptively simple language, Oliver observes nature and relates it to love and purpose and God. The poems are uplifting and breezy, and just the right amount of thought-provoking. A few of the poems confused me and others barely felt like poems, but a few standouts literally took my breath away.

This collection is perfect for the casual poetry reader (like me). While each poem could stand alone, they work beautifully together, and at under a hundred pages, this is a tome that can be enjoyed in an hour, or savored and contemplated over a longer span of time.

My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Print

The Life Council: 10 Friends Every Woman Needs, by Laura Tremaine: Whether you are surrounded by more friends than you know what to do with, or are languishing in a friendship drought, I think we all recognize the value and importance of friendship. But not all friends fill the same roles, and not every friendship fits a certain mold. In The Life Council, podcaster (and everyone’s favorite Hollywood Housewife) Laura Tremaine offers a slightly different take on friendship with a “life council” model, defined as “a selection of friends who fulfill various roles in your life. They are the friends you can call upon when needed. Similar to a Board of Directors of a company or institution, your Life Council offers guidance and a variety of expertise that provides perspective and companionship on an otherwise lonely journey.”

Within this life council, Laura identifies ten different friendship archetypes: among them is the Old Friend with whom you share years of history, and the New Friend who can accept the person you’ve become without the baggage of your past self; the Yes Friend who is always up for an adventure, the Fellow Obsessive who shares your enthusiasm for a specific subject or pastime (this was my favorite!), the Business Bestie, the Mentor, and (perhaps most easily identifiable by cultural standards of friendship) the Daily Duty Friend and Soul Sister. Laura offers a description of each of these friendships, then offers tributes to the women who hold these roles in her own life. These stories are sweet and very personal, and as someone who has followed Laura’s work for a very long time I enjoyed reading these stories (though I worry a new reader would not connect to them). Unfortunately, BECAUSE I have followed Laura for so long (through her blog, newsletters, and various podcasts, as well as the additional podcasts released as preorder bonuses for her books) I was already very familiar with many of the stories and ideas presented throughout the book; I enjoyed the reading experience, but the lack of new content made it seem far too much like a reread. 

Beyond the specific friendship stories included in the book, Laura offers some friendship advice based on her own friendship successes and failures. She shares her five friendship philosophies (not all of which I agree with), as well as suggestions for making friends, being a good friend, and fostering a culture of healthy friendship.

I’ve written extensively about my complicated relationship to friendship (short version: I’ve never been all that great at making and maintaining friends). Because of my experiences, there were aspects of this book that I found helpful and encouraging, especially the idea that friendship doesn’t always have to look a certain way or last a certain amount of time in order to be beneficial and worthwhile. As I read, I could identify a few life council roles that are already filled in my friendship circle. It was disheartening, though, to recognize how many more of my friendship chairs are still vacant. 

This is mostly a personal read, without any real science or data beyond the author’s anecdotal experience. Not every book needs to be backed by loads of studies, but if you are looking to this book as a genuine source of “self help,” you won’t find that here. What you will encounter is some great storytelling from a refreshingly self aware (but more than a little self indulgent) writer, offering her own a sweet (though not especially relatable) tribute to female friendship in all of its brokenness and beauty. 

My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Kindle

Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds, by Jen Wilkin: I came across this book while looking for resources for a group I led this spring on how to study the Bible, and it ended up being one of the best books I’ve read on Biblical literacy! It is concise yet thorough, with enough personal anecdotes to drive home the author’s points without overpowering each chapter’s hard-hitting practical teaching.

Wilkin begins with an explanation of the ways many of us have gotten turned around in our approach to the Bible, and she reorients us by reminding us that 1) the Bible is first and foremost a book about God, and we must be careful not to make it about ourselves; and 2) the heart does not love what the mind cannot know, and in order to love God most fully we need to study Him as He presents Himself to us in the Word. Wilkin then makes a strong case for Biblical literacy (which “occurs when a person has access to a Bible in a language she understands and is steadily moving toward knowledge and understanding of the text”) and points to some habits that are limiting our approach to Scripture (making it about us, failing to take Biblical context into consideration, expecting the Bible to be our Magic 8 Ball, focusing only on topics that pertain to us, and relying on outside sources instead instead of reading Scripture for ourselves).

The main portion of the book teaches the Five P’s of sound study: Purpose (understanding the Bible’s overarching story of creation-fall-redemption-restoration); Perspective (taking into consideration the the historical and cultural context of the text); Patience (resolving not to hurry and setting realistic expectations on our pace of study and focusing on its long-term impact for our lives); Process (methodical reading for comprehension, interpretation, and application); and Prayer (asking God to help us before, during, and after study time). These five components are not necessarily new to me, but the framework for incorporating each one of them into my Bible study is supremely helpful, especially the Process section in which Wilkin suggests specific tools and strategies (such as having an English dictionary at hand, reviewing through writing out our own paraphrases, and prioritizing our own reading/study before turning to commentaries).

The final chapter is an encouragement to teachers with a reminder of how much the church needs the example, perspective, and authority of women teachers in particular. This section is the only part of the book that pertains to a uniquely female audience; every other chapter holds universal usefulness. In fact, the book’s title is the only part of the book I would change, as this isn’t just about Women in the word but ALL BELIEVERS in the Word.

This is an invaluable resources for those of us wanting to make Bible study our own. I commend Jen Wilkin–herself a Bible teacher—for using her platform and teaching to equip women to study the Bible for ourselves rather than relying on other teachers (like her) to do it for us! This is my first book/study from Jen Wilkin but it won’t be my last, and I plan to buy a few copies of this book to hand out to friends who are also looking to up their game when it comes to studying God’s Word for themselves.

My Book Rating: 5 Stars // Book Format: Audiobook (followed along on Kindle)


The Wicked Ones, by Robin Benway: Life for Drizella and Anastasia Tremaine hasn’t been easy. Their father left them when they were young, and in the subsequent decade, their lives have been upended more than once: first with the addition of a stepfather and stepsister, and then upon their stepfather’s demise that has left their cruel, cold mother as head of the house. Drizella and Anastasia hope never to become like their unkind mother, but goodness and beauty are scarce commodities in their home, where the sisters are constantly subjected to their mother’s divisive comments and impossible expectations. The two girls are on the verge of finding hope in the form of a young suitor for Anastasia and a newly discovered passion for Drizella, but their world falls apart one fateful night when the sisters are humiliated at a royal ball and their mother seems more intent than ever to see her daughters suffer.

Always a sucker for a fairy tale retelling, I was drawn to the premise of the “wicked” stepsisters’ backstory, and I really enjoyed this. I especially liked that it was a take on the Disney version of Cinderella, making the characters and imagery more familiar and easier to envision. Bonus points for a YA novel that was engaging for teens, but completely appropriate for middle grade readers! 

I found the explanation for Drizella and Anastasia’s wickedness plausible and was able to view their attitudes and actions with more compassion given their hard journeys. I was able to acknowledge the complexity of their situation, especially their draw towards goodness despite negative conditioning from their mother. We see the internal and interfamilial tensions and come to love both Drizella and Anastasia, even as we shake our heads at their foolishness and dips back into poor behavior. 

One aspect of this story that I really appreciated was that each sister is given a separate path towards hope: for one, this is a romantic interest and for the other it is a career. I found this to be a nice balance between the traditional happily-ever-after and amore modern girl-power message.

I didn’t love the ending, but given that this is a prequel to Cinderella I couldn’t have really asked for anything different. I believe this is the first in a series, and I’m interested to see what other villains’ backstories we get to read about! 

My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Audiobook

Henry Huggins, by Beverly Cleary: This classic story (written and set in 1950) tells the story of Henry Huggins, an ordinary 8-year-old growing up in a quaint Oregon neighborhood. Our introduction to Henry begins with him finding Ribsy, a stray dog who becomes Henry’s beloved pet, and each chapter recounts the hilarious pickles these two find themselves in—from an unfortunate Christmas pageant incident to a very surprising dog show, the acquisition of far too many pet guppies, and one very unconventional attempt to make money for the replacement of a neighbor’s lost ball. Henry is mostly unremarkable, and his approach to life’s quandaries is both humorous and surprisingly believable. (Living with an 8 year old myself, I can absolutely see a child finding himself in these sorts of situations!)

Though I’ve read other books by Beverly Cleary, this was my first foray into the Henry Huggins series and I loved it! As the publishing industry changes and children’s books become much more agenda-driven, I enjoyed reading a simple story whose only goal is to make children laugh. And laugh we did! I also felt all sorts of nostalgia for the simpler time depicted in these stories, a time I never had the opportunity to live myself but that felt similar to my own childhood in the 80s and 90s and that I enjoy revisiting in fiction.

Henry Huggins is a timeless book and Charleston and I both are eager to continue with the series.

My Rating: 4 Stars // Charleston’s Rating: 5 Stars // Book Format: Print

Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George: Celie is just an ordinary 11-year-old princess, but the castle she calls home is nothing short of extraordinary: it is a magical castle, always growing and changing to suit the needs of the individuals it favors (and making life quite difficult for those outside of its good graces). 

When Celie’s parents, King and Queen Glower, are ambushed and their fate is left unknown, the future of the kingdom rests on the shoulders of Celie and her brother Rolf and sister Lilah. The castle will do everything in its power to protect the royal family from outsiders who are threatening to take over, but without knowing whom they can trust and when (or if) their parents will ever return, the siblings must also rely on their own cunning and ability to navigate the ever-evolving castle, or all will be lost. 

This middle grade fantasy story is extremely clever, featuring some of my favorite fiction tropes: a magical setting that is itself a character in the story, close-knit siblings working together to serve a greater good, a fun and quirky protagonist, and plenty of puzzles and intrigue. Despite this pitch-perfect blend of story parts, the novel is a little slow due to its giant cast of confusingly-named side characters, plenty of unfamiliar (fictional) people groups/languages/terms, and repetitive plot lines. I think this would have been even better at about half the length. But in spite of a story that occasionally dragged, Charleston and I both enjoyed this endearing and humorous story of courage, cunning, and loyalty.

My Rating: 3.75 Stars // Charleston’s Rating: 4.5 Stars // Book Format: Print


All That Is Mine I Carry With Me, by William Landay: In the fall of 1975, ten-year-old Miranda Larkin returns home from school to find that her mother is missing. There are no clues as to Jane Larkin’s whereabouts, and no signs of a struggle; but her mother never returns, and there is growing suspicion among the town that Miranda’s father, Dan, is behind his wife’s disappearance (and assumed death). 

The event haunts the Larkin family (including Miranda, her two brothers, and her mother’s extremely close sister) for decades. Even when, twenty years later, Jane Larkin’s remains are found and the investigation is reopened, there is not enough evidence to convict the man everyone assumes is responsible. The suspected crime tears at the family, with one son remaining loyal to his father while the other two children keep their distance. When an opportunity arises for the family to bring their mother’s death to justice, they are all forced to reckon with the hard facts: how sure can they be of their father’s guilt? Should loyalty to their family hold priority over uncovering the truth?

For the right audience, this is a must-read. Know going in that this is more family drama than mystery. Also be aware that there are no firm conclusions here, no obvious answers: uncertainty is at the heart of everything within this book, and we are left with many questions and open endings. The author plays with the narration (the novel is divided into four “books,” each told from a different perspective, and all of which are unreliable for one reason or another) to keep the reader guessing, adding complexity to the already-tricky story. I liked the opportunity to play along with the story and enjoyed the narration switch-up and the numerous hidden clues lurking within the crevices of the story.

Other highlights of the novel include some excellent courtroom scenes and a propulsive examination of hard but universal themes such as loyalty, the nature of truth, and the necessity of compromise. I especially relished the few moments where the author pulls back the fourth wall to let us in on his creative process.

After hearing the author on Sarah’s Bookshelves, I knew this was a book I had to read for myself. The interview enhanced my appreciation for the novel and prepared me for a book that would be a challenging read. (Had I not known this, I might have been frustrated by the lack of resolution, and I may have missed some of the hints planted within the story.) Heads up for some sensitive subjects (domestic abuse, suicide, addiction) and unlikable characters!

My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Kindle

Lucy by the Sea, by Elizabeth Strout: A year after the death of her second husband, author Lucy Barton finds her life in New York City uprooted in the spring of 2020 when the world goes into lockdown. Lucy’s first husband, William, is a scientist who knows what lies ahead and he whisks Lucy off to a remote house in Maine where they can quarantine apart from the chaos of the city. Lucy’s quarantine experience is much like what most of us experienced in that generation-defining season as she faces fear, confusion, loneliness, and boredom. New connections (largely virtual) are formed as Lucy and William make decisions about whom to invite into their physical lives and how much of their emotions and hearts they will give to others and to each other. 

Though fictional, this novel reads like a historical document as Lucy recounts the events of 2020—events we all lived through, but may have already forgotten: the initial terror and panic (washing down groceries, remaining literally locked inside our houses); the monotony of quarantine life; the arguing and disagreements over things like masks and social distancing and vaccines;  and the ways that the pandemic changed our outlook on nearly everything. This is not an especially uplifting book: it is very sad, and very hard, as you can imagine given the subject matter. But there are also moments of kindness and redemption that keep this from growing too depressing.

Lucy by the Sea is light on plot, and the narrative feels even lighter given that it’s a story we have all ALREADY lived ourselves. Although the book is ostensibly pretty slow, I remained engaged, largely because it prompted so much recollection and reflection for me. As I read, I wavered on whether or not I felt prepared to revisit the events of 2020 so soon; the look back reminded me of how much I had forgotten from that time, and I found myself viewing it all quite differently in retrospect. 

Elizabeth Strout’s prose is unlike any other author I’ve read; a New York Times review describes it far better than I could: “One proof of Elizabeth Strout’s greatness is the sleight of hand with which she injects sneaky subterranean power into seemingly transparent prose. Strout works in the realm of everyday speech, conjuring repetitions, gaps and awkwardness with plain language and forthright diction, yet at the same time unleashing a tidal urgency that seems to come out of nowhere even as it operates in plain sight.” I have admired this writing style in Strout’s other books but cared less for it here, likely because the context felt a little too personal. The reading experience was so intimate, I felt as though I was snooping into the narrator’s private diaries and it was an uncomfortable experience. 

This could technically be read as a standalone, but with so many callbacks to other books in the series (and with cameos by characters from Sprout’s other series) I would recommend reading those first. Even though this was not a favorite read, it felt like an important one: it is well-written, insightful, and deeply human, capturing a time in history as only Elizabeth Strout can in a way that is so deeply personal yet uncannily universal.

I would be remiss not to mention that this book has a strong left-leaning political bent. Personally,  I didn’t love the angle that tried so hard to be self-aware but fell short on many levels. Still, it was interesting to “experience” the pandemic and its aftermath from a perspective quite different from my own.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars (Rounded down to 3 Stars on Goodreads) // Book Format: Kindle

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton: Born in March of 1944 to a teenage mother, twins Henry and Ava are unlike other children: Henry is mostly mute for most of his childhood and Ava, though unremarkable in every other way, is born with the wings of a bird. Years later, a much-older Ava begins the retelling of her life with these words: “To many, I was myth incarnate, the embodiment of a most superb legend, a fairy tale. Some considered me a monster, a mutation. To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel. To my mother, I was everything. To my father, nothing at all. To my grandmother, I was a daily reminder of loves long lost. But I knew the truth — deep down, I always did. I was just a girl.”

In a quest to understand her anomalies, Ava digs deep into her family history.  Through Ava’s eyes we join her great-grandfather, Beauregard Roux, and his compliant wife at the start of the twentieth century as they journey with their four eccentric children from France to America. Only one child survives to adulthood, and Emilienne Roux—Ava’s maternal grandmother—ventures across the country to Seattle, where future generations live under the sorrowful skies of the Pacific Northwest. Within each generation we observe heartbreak, tragedy, and sorrow, but also profound love, resilience, and an indomitable pursuit of beauty, wholeness, and purpose.  

As the title suggests, this book is very strange and also very beautiful: it is utterly unique, unlike anything I’ve read, and it’s not a book I would have known about or picked up if it were not personally given to me by a friend. (Only after I’d read the book did the friend admit she never finished it, as it wasn’t to her taste; thankfully and rather surprisingly, it was very much a good fit for me.) From the outset we know this is a book of magical realism, and the lyrical storytelling takes on the tone of a fable or myth with poetic writing that is steeped in metaphor and radiating layers of emotion and meaning. The story meanders through family members and across time, giving this the feel of historical fiction, but the numerous anachronisms and occasional fantastical elements (a stray ghost, the gradual vanishing of a character, the eruption into feathers of another, etc.) tip us off to the fact that this is not your ordinary generational saga. 

Though this is fantasy, the themes ring true: it is a story of love won and lost, preserved and relinquished, pursued and abandoned—and rarely along expected timelines, always with someone getting hurt. This book is heartbreaking but exquisitely told and masterfully crafted. A few aspects kept it from being a 5-star read for me, primarily the darker tones (there is a grotesque quality to some of the descriptions that was hard to stomach) and some deeply troubling scenes (heads up for instances of suicide, rape, and other violence). There are also more characters than I could keep track of, and many storylines that are left open-ended.

This is written for a YA audience and though it would be enjoyed by teens (though I’d only recommend it to high school and up), the incredible writing, engaging themes, and multifaceted characters and stories give it broad appeal for adult readers as well. I certainly will be holding on to the memory of this haunting novel for years to come.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars // Book Format: Print

Have you read any of these titles? I’d love to hear your thoughts. And of course I want to know what YOU are reading and loving lately!

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